Meet The Woman Revolutionizing Renewable Energy in The Caribbean
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman was awarded the 2018 CARICOM Energy Personality Award.
Energy Personality: Hannah Olmberg-Soesman
Today I interview Hannah Olmberg-Soesman, winner of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Energy Personality Award. Olmberg-Soesman received the inaugural award for her exceptional contribution to a sustainable energy future in the region. A dynamic entrepreneur with a background in social work and a master degree in law, Hannah Olmberg-Soesman has managed to bring together the different strands of her professional life and plait them together into new opportunities for communities living in the hinterland in her native Suriname.
Focusing on women’s empowerment, she and her company team have been instrumental in introducing off-grid solar systems to remote villages. This has opened up possibilities for better school education, medical care and small-scale business to augment these families’ income, while at the same time proving that, once the initial outlay paid for, clean energy proves to be a determining factor of local development.
James Ellsmoor: Congratulations on being awarded CARICOM Energy Personality! I noticed that you haven’t always worked in energy, so could you please start by telling us how you entered into the energy sector?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: Thank you very much, it was truly an honor for me to receive this award. I have been operating in the solar energy sector for the past 7 years. It has been quite the challenge but has also given me a sense of fulfillment. My husband and I started Guguplex Technologies SAC as a solar energy company not just to provide energy to much needed rural villages in the interior of my country Suriname, but to trigger social, educational, economic and personal development.
With our 10+ years social work background and volunteer work within these villages, we always wanted to make a difference in the lives of the people in the hinterland. It was during these volunteering missions that we came into contact with Markus Theobald, a British social entrepreneur in solar energy. We realized that solar was the perfect solution for both energy supply and social economic development of the hinterland of our country and we made it our mission to be more than just commercial entrepreneurs.
James Ellsmoor: Many of the readers might be unfamiliar with Suriname. What would you like them to know about your country? Why is renewable energy so important?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: Suriname is a wonderful tropical country at the north coast of South America. We are very warm and friendly people with a multitude of ethnicities living amongst and with each other in harmony. In Paramaribo, the capital city, we have a Mosque and Synagogue next to each other. My people are as sunny as the sun we have available in Suriname!
Suriname is also a CARICOM member and we have a close relationship with the countries of the Caribbean. Suriname consists of 20% coastal land and 80 % hinterland with ecologically rich forests. Our coastal area receives 24 hours energy from the national grid company, but due to the remoteness, more than 200 villages in the hinterland cannot be connected to the central grid. Most of these villages receive 4 to 5 hours electricity daily between 18:00 and 23:00 from government owned diesel generators.
Solar rooftop installation in Tabiki, Suriname.
James Ellsmoor: What are the challenges to development in the hinterland of Suriname? How are you trying to tackle them?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: I would start with the lack of access to sustainable, quality and reliable energy. Through Guguplex, we always empower the communities we execute projects in to focus on their development as a whole through the renewable energy made available, instead of seeing energy as a consumption “product”.
With access to sustainable energy both individuals as well as whole village communities can explore the unlimited opportunities beyond their rivers and forests. Educational development increases through the use of ICT and internet, economic development increases because people can exploit the energy for production, communities can increase the livelihood of their people because services as medical treatment, banks, government and private bureaus and organizations can operate their offices and decentralize their services. So, the biggest challenge is to provide sustainable energy to the hinterland of Suriname, not just as a consumption product, but within a holistic strategic plan to bring forth sustainable social economic development in every sector.
James Ellsmoor: Your work also focuses on women’s empowerment. What additional challenges to women in Suriname face and how is renewable energy alleviating them?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: In the hinterland of Suriname women are mostly caretakers at home and agricultural farmers. The Challenges I have met during my years of working amongst and with them is the accessibility of education, finances and sustainable energy to enhance and improve their personal development, economic and household activities. I am proud to say also that they are very hard-working women who not only take care of the household, children, but cultivate and harvest their agricultural plots.
You have many of these women who send their products to the city for sale on the markets. They also are very skilled in handcrafted clothing’s and crafts which they also send to the city for sale through family members who have migrated to the main city. Through local village non- profit organizations, they sometimes come together to empower themselves. Some women also start small shops to sell basic consumption products they buy in the city, but also have to deal with high energy costs for operating generators during the day to keep their shops open.
Renewable energy improves women's quality of life. Through renewable energy their children can study till night hours and receive computer education, their household chores can be spread throughout the whole day, they conserve wild meat and fish which they can sell for a longer period to locals as well as visiting tourist and people from the city, they educate themselves through the internet, they start small business and create not only work and income for themselves but also for other locals who work for them. I could go on with the list of the advantages and positive impact!
James Ellsmoor: What has been the biggest challenge in your work?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: As a mother of 5 in order to be effective and efficient I have learned to work with not only local organizations but also with regional and international organizations such as the Caribbean Climate Innovation Center and the Clinton Foundation's Women in Renewable Energy (WIRE) network. As a mentor of the WIRE network I learn and teach, I inspire and I am being challenged to live a meaningful life and help others to do also. The past 2 years have been the biggest challenge for me to keep going despite of the economic setbacks in our economy and being inventive to stay afloat as a business, but my husband and I persevere as business owners and keep on developing new ways to continue our business and services.
James Ellsmoor: What do you see for the future of Suriname and particularly the energy sector?
Hannah Olmberg-Soesman: I am very much optimistic about the future of sustainable energy in Suriname. I am well aware that it will take some time on government level to see the results in legislation and national governmental policy and strategy, but I personally believe that communities and especially villages outside the grid do not have to wait on the government to take and execute these measures. For me renewable energy, or any kind of energy, does not have much relevance if it does not actively contribute to social, economic, educational and national or regional development. So, communities and villages can make a start by making good use of the daily improving development of renewable energy products and systems and start within their own community. With the development that this will bring, it will make it an easier task for governments to join in or take up the movement.
At the same time, it will be of high importance for the Surinamese government to take the following things into account if we want to become more sustainable:
- The development of favorable policies that encourage the import, development and implementation of renewable energy.
- Investment in proper technical and professional education in Suriname on renewable energy to have local professionals.
- Increased public private partnership in order to develop a sustainable roadmap for the implementation of renewable energy in the hinterland to make the communities resilient.
James Ellsmoor: It's been a pleasure talking with you, Hannah. Thank you for sharing your experiences.